I recently read a post by Ashe Dryden which has led me to edit a job advert we currently have online. I thought the story might be of interest.
Ashe notes that it is becoming increasingly common to look at a coder’s public GitHub pages and contributions as a way of getting a quick view of their skills and energy. The basic idea is that someone with loads of public, well documented code is probably a good coder you want to have on board – and someone with an altruistic interest in free and open source technology to boot. What could be wrong with that?
The gist of Ashe’s argument is that there’s actually quite a big problem with this. What it all boils down to is the fact that contributions to GitHub aren’t just a sign of someone’s enthusiasm or skill, it’s also a sign that they have the good fortune to have lots of spare time. And guess what – the people who have lots of spare time are also people who tend to have a lot of other privileges in life.
So, as a response to Ashe’s challenge, I have removed the requirement in our latest job advert to have proof that you have been willing and able to do impressive things in your spare time. We will still vet people for enthusiasm and passion – especially important at a mission-driven non-profit like mySociety – but we won’t do it in ways that potentially exclude people who could make a big contribution to our goals.
NB We are advertising for three different roles right now, not just coders. Do please take a look.
Though mySociety does not have a specific focus on women’s education our websites are still powerful tools for learning. Education doesn’t just take place in the classroom. Nor does it stop when you leave school, college or university. Websites like Mzalendo in Kenya help educate people about their politicians. They provide information about what their representatives have said in Parliament, about their political and work experience. This information can help Kenyan citizens to hold their elected representatives to account, and to understand more about the decisions that affect their lives.
Alaveteli is perhaps an even stronger example of this. Visiting an alaveteli website not only allows you to request information, it allows you to search through information others have requested and learn from it, potentially about topics you were unaware of before. We know that in the UK each request on WhatDoTheyKnow is read by an average of 20 people. And by having that information available publicly and allowing people to educate themselves about the actions of their government, it is easier for citizens to hold those in power to account.
It seems like a FixMyStreet site might not have a connection to education. But we think it does! At the most obvious level, FixMyStreet provides councils with information. They learn where problems are in their area and gain a deeper understanding of the issues that concern their citizens. This flow of information is not just one way though. Residents that use the site suddenly find they can take ownership of the problems in their local area, and get them resolved. At times, governments – local or national – can appear to be vast and distant. By using something like FixMyStreet residents can begin to see the practical role they can play in improving their own lives. This is a very important thing to learn.
Our sites are being set up and used by people of every gender, all over the world. This is an amazing thing and one we wholly support. Access to tools for learning should not be restricted dependent on race, class, gender, religion or ethnicity. The opportunity to learn should be open to all.
The world knows Malala Yousafzai. General Ban Ki Moon said it best when he said “When the Taliban shot Malala, they showed what they feared most: a girl with a book.” Because information and education give women, and everyone else in the world, the knowledge to stand up and say “This is not right.”, to make their lives better and to take a stand for a more open, free society.
That’s one of the reasons we create the websites we create, to help people educate themselves to gain knowledge and skills which can start the process of making their societies more open, transparent and participative.
Happy International day of the Girl.
Put yourself, for a moment, into the shoes of a manager in a big public sector organisation, in almost any country in the richer parts of the world (well, except Norway, maybe). Times are tough. Budgets are shrinking. And yet some annoying nerd from the corporate web team keeps nagging you about the fact that the organisation’s website and social media usage are not up to scratch.
You sigh. How can they not get it? Last year you had to serve a million people with £x, and this year you’ve got to serve 1.1 million with £x minus a lot. You’re desperately trying to think of ways to avoid serving extra people with services that you already can’t afford. You’re tightening eligibility, closing branches, laying people off, shortening hours.
And yet this annoying ‘webmaster’ person keeps saying how important it is to make your site easier to use. Don’t they understand that ideally the site would be virtually impossible to use? Don’t they know that most big IT projects turn into massive black-holes for money anyway? And how can they not see the obvious truth, which is that we should leave the stupid website well alone until the good times return?
Seductive logic but the wrong conclusion
This seems like a pretty open-and-shut argument. If you want to spend less, why on earth make it easier for people to ask you for more services?
But as seductive as this argument is, it’s also wrong. Here’s why.
1. Using bad design to limit demand is a way of guaranteeing that you spend more of your money on the people who need it least. Skilled computer users can get past all the hurdles and pain points created by bad digital services. Those people also tend to be the richest and best educated people in society. So bad digital service design is a filter that almost guarantees that you’ll be serving the people who need your services least. And you still want next year’s budget renewed, do you?
2. It creates unnecessary costs that will keep rising as times get tougher. If you can’t effectively use digital channels to explain what you do and don’t offer people, then those people aren’t all going to vanish. In fact most of them will persist. And once they find it impossible to use your digital channels, they’re going to phone up, then send you letters and emails, then visit your offices and perhaps even complete entire application forms that you’ll have to process and reject. That’s all a lot more expensive than a simple, well written, easy to find page that says what services are and are not offered, and to whom.
3. You’re missing a fantastic chance to generate empathy from the public. Public servants often complain that the public doesn’t understand the constraints and compromises that have to be made when delivering public services. But what better time and place to explain about limited budgets and hard choices than when someone is trying to access a service that cannot be provided? High quality digital services are a fantastic platform to explain these dilemmas. I would love to see councils using comments on FixMyStreet and FixMyTransport reports to say – in public – that ‘we can’t afford to fix this’. From that clear, accessible confession, we could all benefit from a wider public debate about why services are being limited.
4. Bad design makes people think you’re lazy and incompetent, not that you are making hard, difficult choices with limited budgets. When I try to buy a book on Amazon and it’s out of stock, it doesn’t just crash, or give me false information, or become unusable. Instead it says sorry and I say ‘oh well’ and move on. If Amazon lied to me about the stock, or became impossible to use, I’d think it was run by a bunch of incompetents. It would not cross my mind for a nanosecond that this was a bold, difficult choice made by people managing tough problems.
Tom Steinberg is the director of mySociety, and a consultant at mySociety ltd, our subsidiary that aims to help our clients serve the public with brilliantly simple online tools.
Photo by Alan Levine (CC)
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the Flexibility of FixMyStreet. Well, this is the second in that series. I’m aiming to give other ideas for uses of the code for Pombola, our monitoring website, which is currently used for Parliamentary monitoring platforms in a number of countries.
I say currently because as with all our platforms it doesn’t *have* to be used for parliamentary monitoring. In Pombola you can create a database of people, speeches and organisations, along with news streams (as a blog), social media streams and scorecards. You also have a geographical element which allows you to search for relevant local information in those databases that feed Pombola, such as your local MP.
We’re really interested in how our platforms could be used for unique uses, so if you have any other ideas don’t hesitate to get in touch!
Here are my ideas:
1) Monitoring progress towards climate change goals
The background: Climate change is a politically charged topic and many of the worlds governments have pledged to meet specific goals by 2020.  Organisations like Greenpeace are lobbying for wider recognition and stricter goals from participants.  And the impact of climate change is being attributed to everything from flooding to violence 
The concept: Create a site using the Pombola code base which has profiles of each government that has pledged to reach specific targets by 2020. The profiles would include a contact address for the department dealing with climate change, information on how often the speakers mention climate change, and information on the targets they have pledged to meet. You could scorecard each country to show how well they’ve progressed towards their goals and the best and worst would be showcased on the front page. If you had some time to do your own modifications then using a promise tracker and some infographics like a heatmap would really add to this!
Impact it would hope to achieve: The aim would be to create an easily understandable tool for monitoring government pledges to combat climate change worldwide. It would be a great tool for lobbyists and journalists, presenting data as both visualisation and statistics. It would also allow concerned citizens to raise their views through comments on each country profile, thus starting a public dialogue on the site (though this would need moderation).
2) Monitoring hospital performance in the Middle East and Africa
The background: Hospitals in the Middle East and Africa were surveyed in 2012 by an independent research group. The group found that an average of 8.2% of patients suffered adverse effects  of healthcare management. The WHO believed that this is a failing in training and healthcare management systems , which could be addressed.
The concept: Creating a website that would keep a database of hospitals across a country. Each hospital would have a profile with a breakdown of the services they offered, the area they covered and statistics about their performance, cleanliness and staff training initiatives. A user would be able to search for their city or district and find the best closest hospital to go to for care. You would be able to scorecard the hospitals to give users a first glance view of what the care is like. This really focusses on the core functionality that Pombola gives; a database of people and organisations linked to geographical locations to make it easy for people to see useful local information at a glance.
Impact it would hope to achieve: As well as giving people the information to make the best choices about their health care, this platform could provide important data for donors to enable them to target aid money to the most needy areas. The overall aim would be to hopefully help improve the quality of care by providing the best easily accessible data to people who can help with training.
3) Stripped down disaster response database
The background: Disaster response teams respond to numerous emergencies each year but sometimes the scope of the disaster can be overwhelming . People are often separated and collecting information on who remains missing can be difficult, causing psychological strain.  Dependent on the scope and type of disaster people may be displaced for a significant amount of time.
The concept: A stripped down version of Pombola, simply involving mapping and people databases, to allow people to submit their names and the names of their families. Each person would have a status assigned to them (either missing or found) and people would be able to submit their updates via email to the central database. You could also associate found people with the aid organisation that has taken them in, so families would know who to contact. This could also allow the aid organisations to have a profile themselves, giving people the chance to comment to see if their loved ones had been found. The idea is that it would keep both the records of who is searching for people as well as the people themselves.
Impact it would hope to achieve: The idea behind this would be to bring psychological relief to friends and families searching for lost loved ones. It would be an electronic bulletin board of missing and found people, and even if people had no access to the internet, NGOs or civil society groups coordinating relief efforts could have, therefore would be able to provide a non-internet version of this service.
 Page 3 http://goo.gl/khZBPn
More and more people are starting to build websites to help people become more powerful in their civic and democratic lives. Some of these are on codebases that mySociety has created which is so great. There are some things which we would love to happen when you take our code and re-use it.
We want people using our code to keep it as up to date as they can, so that they gain the benefits of any changes made to the code by us or by other users. There are a few reasons for this:
You can co-brand the site without breaking anything.
Dave, one of our developers, explains how you do this. “So suppose, instead of calling it FixMyStreet you want to call it FixMyBorchester with a Borchester logo. Obviously this is a very real requirement, because people want to rebrand. One very feasible (but wrong! As you’ll see…) way of doing this is downloading the FixMyStreet code, finding the bit that paints the FixMyStreet logo and replacing it with the words <h1>FixMyBorchester</h1> and an image. This would work as far as the FixMyBorchester branding would appear on the site.
But if you then saved and committed your change to git and passed it back to us as a push request, we would reject it. This is for the obvious reason that if we didn’t, next time we deployed FixMyStreet in the UK it would have your logo on it.
However, say we suddenly discover there is a bug with FixMyStreet. For (a bizarre) example, if someone put the number 0 in instead of a postcode and the site returns a huge picture of a kitten. We love kittens, but that’s not what the site is trying to do. So, we make some fixes to the code that rejects zeros, commit it, update the repo, and it’s now there on the master branch. We write to everyone saying “really everyone, update to the latest (most up-to-date) place on the master branch” And you think, “yeah OK!” and you download the latest version.
If you just download it and copy it into place, you’re going to lose your FixMyBorchester changes, because there’s a more recent version of that file from us that hasn’t got them. If you did a “git pull” (which roughly means, “git! get me the latest version of master branch”) then git will refuse because there’s a conflict on that file.
So, instead of inserting your FixMyBorchester stuff over ours, which can’t work, you make a new directory in the right place called ‘FixMyBorchester‘, put your stuff in there and switch the FixMyStreet config — which knows this is something people want to do — to use that cobrand. Any templates FixMyStreet finds in there will now be used instead of ours. You can now safely update the codebase from our repo from time to time and FixMyStreet and git will never damage your templates, because they are in a place it doesn’t mess with.”
You can add new features
Dave continues. “Say when someone uses FixMyBorchester it’s essential that you have their twitter handle, because every time a problem is updated, FixMyBorchester direct-tweets them a kitten for fun. Right now there is no capacity to store a twitter handle for a user in FixMyStreet.
You simply add a column to the users table in your database and add some code for accepting that twitter handle when you register, and sending the kittens etc. That’s new code that isn’t in FixMyStreet at all. Sooner or later you’ll need to put at least one line into the main FixMyStreet program code to make this happen. As soon as you do that you have the same problem we had before, only this time it’s in code not in an HTML template.
What we would encourage you to do is put all your new code in a branch that we can look at, and maybe set it to run only if there’s a config setting that says USE_TWITTER=true. That way any implementation that doesn’t want to use twitter, which is — at this point — every other FixMyStreet installation in the world — won’t be affected by it. You send that to us as a pull request and a developer checks it’s not breaking anything, and is up to scratch in quality, and has good test coverage. Then we’ll accept it.
Even though currently nobody else in the world wants your twitter feature, it’s not breaking anything and it’s now in the repo so you can automatically update from our master when we change bits of our files, and the installation/overwrite/git-pull will work. Plus anyone that does decide they want this feature will now be able to enable it and use it.”
And all of this helps everyone using the code; you have a secure website that can be patched and updated each time we release something, other people have access to features you’ve built and vice versa. And overall, the project becomes more feature rich.
Please do make changes and push them back to the main codebase!
Image credit: US Coast Guard CC BY-NC-ND
As I wrote in my last post, I am very concerned about the lack of comprehensible, consistent language to talk about the hugely diverse ways in which people are using the internet to bring about social and political change. Pleasingly, it seems I’m not entirely alone in this, as some good posts from Nathaniel Heller and Tiago Peixoto make clear. So, to continue the discussion, I’m going to use this post to set out some suggested language that I’ve been thinking about for a while.
We need a family of terms – not another one-off slogan
First up, let’s talk about scope. The problem with so many tech buzzwords is that they’re one-offs, they don’t link to other more familiar ideas nicely. So I started from the view that we need a family of several terms that can be used to describe everything from Wikileaks to Votizen, and that they shouldn’t be too novel or new. We need a family of interlinked terms that concisely and clearly describes both how projects in this broad field are similar and how they are different.
But before I can set out my suggested family of terms, I need to step back and ask ‘what is this sector we’re talking about naming and segmenting, anyway?’
A name for the whole sector
Obviously defining any area of human endeavour is a fraught process: you can’t ever draw a definitive ring around a bunch of ideas, activities or organisations and say ‘this group is perfectly defined and totally unambiguous’. So instead of losing sleep over that I’m simply going to say that I would find it useful if there was a name for the sector that includes everything from Obama for America to Anonymous to Avaaz to Nation Builder to the Sunlight Foundation.
My approach to finding an appropriate name was to look at the way that other internet industry sectors are named, so that I could choose a name that sits nicely next to very familiar sectoral labels. For example, there’s ecommerce, which deals with people’s need to shop. There’s online dating, which is about people’s need for relationships. There are social networks, which are about serving people’s needs to keep up with their friends. What divides these sectors, broadly speaking? The answer is that each sector is primarily focussed on serving a different kind of user need (please note the ‘primarily’ there – there are obviously overlaps). Whether you need music, or games, or financial services, or medical advice – there’s a relatively clearly named sector already online to help you.
So what is the unifying need that ties together things are different as Wikileaks, Anonymous, Kiva or the Open Knowledge Foundation? I would argue that despite their many differences, all of the organisations in this sector are about serving people’s need to obtain and deploy power.
Now I know that power can sound like a negative word (as in ‘power mad’ or ‘absolute power’), but I am using it in a non-judgemental way. Wikipedia defines power as ‘the ability to influence the behaviour of people’. When you vote, or sign a petition, or retweet a political link you’re trying to exert some power over someone somewhere, and that doesn’t make you a bad person!
So I suggest that we name the broad field in which we work the Civic Power sector. Why these two words? Because unlike ‘open’ or ‘peer’ or ‘digital’ I think that most people will have a rough sense of what these two words mean, especially when sandwiched together. I hope you can see Civic Power sitting reasonably nicely alongside existing fields like ecommerce, gaming, streaming video, online news and so on.
Segmenting the Civic Power sector
Choosing a single sectoral name – Civic Power – is not really the point of this exercise. The real benefit would come from being able to segment the many projects within this sector so that they are more easy to compare and contrast.
Here is my suggested four part segmentation of the Civic Power sector:
Decision Influencing organisations
Regime Changing organisations
Citizen Empowering organisations
Digital Government organisations
So, what do these terms mean?
I’ve tried to keep the names as self explanatory as I can. Here’s what I mean by my four titles:
- Decision influencing organisations try to directly shape or change particular decisions made by powerful individuals or organisations.
- Regime changing organisations try to replace decision makers, not persuade them.
- Citizen Empowering organisations try to give people the resources and the confidence required to exert power for whatever purpose those people see fit, both now and in the future.
- Digital Government organisations try to improve the ways in which governments acquire and use computers and networks. Strictly speaking this is just a sub-category of ‘decision influencing organisation’, on a par with an environmental group or a union, but more geeky.
Putting Organisations into Categories
To make it all a bit more practical, here’s a table where I put various well known digital-native groups into different categories, based on each organisation’s primary mission. Note that many organisations listed below will have activities that fit into several of these categories, but I am segmenting them by their core purposes, or, to put it another way – their founders’ main desires:
FYI the ‘REBEL’ logo refers to Tamarod, in Egypt, and their massive anti-Morsi petition.
Can you sub-segment these even further?
Even these categories are still pretty big. I can certainly see how further sub-segmentations might work, like ‘Transparency-based decision influencing organisations’ (e.g. Human Rights Watch) vs ‘Legal challenge-based decision influencing organisations’ (e.g. EFF). But I don’t think it is worth delving deeper down the hierarchy until a debate has been had about the top of the tree.
So there we go, one part-baked naming system awaiting your feedback. Please let me know if you have any problems with this structure, or if you can see better ways of saying the same things. For me, I’m just pleased that I have some terms which I can try to use to make slightly more sense of the complex world in which mySociety finds itself.
A lot of people come to mySociety to reuse our code having seen the UK websites, which is great! Then you can see what we’re trying to do in the UK and how you could replicate it abroad. But what I wonder, and what lead me to write this blog post, is are we reining in your imagination for what these platforms could be used for?
9 times out of 10, when someone contacts me about FixMyStreet, it’s for street reporting problems. Naturally, it’s in the name of the platform! But we do get the occasional request to use it differently, which is something we’re really keen to explore. Here are some things I think it could be used for, that aren’t street related:
1) Antiretroviral Drug shortages in clinics in Africa.
The background: 34% of the world’s HIV positive population currently live in Southern or Eastern Africa . These people need antiretroviral drugs to survive, some of which could be supplied by the Government’s medical stores, some of which could be supplied by charities, but it is often reported that there are shortages of drugs at some clinics 
The concept: A mobile responsive FixMyStreet site which health clinic staff can use to report the status of their stock to the relevant supplier. The site would instantly send an email to the clinic supplier when the staff member dropped a pin on their clinic on a map in the site. There could be different alert categories such as “stock running low”, “stock critically low” and “Out of stock”
Impact it would hope to achieve: The aim would be to enable clinics to report on the status of their stock far enough in advance that the supplier could order and deliver stock before they hit the Critically low or Out of Stock status. This would mean that people would always be supplied with ARVs if they need them. Another point would be that patients could check the map to see if the clinic in their area has stock of the ARVs they need, and potentially choose another clinic if there is a shortage.
The background: It’s no surprise to anyone to hear that some species of wildlife are under threat. Wildlife conservation charities, like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), annually monitor population levels for endangered species  to ensure they have accurate data on population growth or decline and the lifestyles and habitats of the wildlife they are aiming to preserve.
The concept: A mobile responsive FixMyStreet site which allows people to report sightings of endangered animals to wildlife conservation charities. The site would be tailored for area (eg the endangered animals native to certain countries) or could simply be per species (eg mammals, avians etc). The public would then be able to take a picture of the animal, attach it to the report and leave a short message, like “2 adult bitterns accompanied by young seen at 10:41am). The report will give the charities the location the animal was spotted in and they will be able to add this to their research data.
Impact it would hope to achieve: Hopefully this idea would contribute valuable data to the research of Wildlife Conservation charities. Another hope is that it would make people more interested in the wildlife in their surrounding area, thus more involved in conserving it and its habitat.
3) Reporting polluted Waterways
The background: You may have seen the reports from China earlier this year about the dead pigs found in the Huangpu River . It’s not just a Chinese phenomenon: around the world rivers, canals and lakes are becoming more and more polluted.  In fact the statistics coming from the UN are quite shocking. This not only has a harmful effect on wildlife in the river, but could lead to longer term issues with clean drinking water, especially in countries where cleaning polluted water is an expensive option.
The concept: This is very similar to the classic FixMyStreet. A website would be set up where a person could submit a photo and report of a polluted waterway by dropping a pin on a map at the position of the river. This report would then get sent to the local council or persons responsible for caring for the waterway.
Impact it would hope to achieve: Similarly to FixMyStreet in the UK, this would help to get citizens more actively involved in their local area and government. The idea would also be that the council would hopefully start dedicating more resources to clear rivers and waterways. Or local residents could form a group to remove litter themselves. In the case of chemical or oil spills this would obviously not be advised. However if chemical waste or oil spillages were noticed to be originating from specific buildings then the council would have the opportunity to bring this up with the residents or companies in these buildings.
So those are some of my ideas! What are yours?
We’re actively looking to support non-street uses of FixMyStreet so please do get in contact on email@example.com with your ideas and we’ll work together to see how we can achieve them!
Oh, and, don’t worry if you still want a classic FixMyStreet, we’ll help you with that too!
 Orangutan by Matthew Kang
 Primary colours by Vineet Radhakrishnan
I don’t think it is too controversial to make the following – rather boring – assertions: Greenpeace is part of the environmental movement. Oxfam is an international development charity. Human Rights Watch is part of the human rights movement. Obama for America is a political campaign. Facebook dominates the social networking sector. I hope none of these simple, descriptive statements has caused you to turn purple with semantic rage.
But what primary movement or sector is mySociety part of? Or Avaaz? Or Kiva? Or Wikileaks? When I ask myself these questions, no obvious words or names race quickly or clearly to mind. There is a gap – or at best quite a bit of fuzziness – where the labels should go.
This lack of good labels should surprise us because these groups definitely have aims and goals, normally explicit. Also, it is unusual because social and political movements tend to be quite good at developing names and sticking to them. If you were given a time machine you could tell a Victorian that you were ‘pro-democracy’ or ‘anti-slavery’ and the locals would have no trouble understanding you. Terms like ‘gender equality’, ‘small government’, ‘cancer research’, ‘anti-smoking’, even ‘anti-capitalist’, can comfortably be used by news media companies without fear of baffling the audience. The public can also easily understand terms that referred to methods of achieving change, rather than goals, terms like ‘political TV advertising’, ‘protests’, ‘petitions‘ and ‘telethons’.
But now let’s look at some of the common terms that are used to talk about the (very) wide field of digital social change projects. These include ‘digital transparency’, ‘hacktivism’, ‘peer production’, ‘edemocracy’, ‘clicktivism‘ and ‘open data’. But if you tried to slip one into a newspaper headline, the terms would definitely fall beneath the sub-editor’s axe before they could make it to print. They are too niche, and too likely to confuse readers.
The first thing to note about most of these terms is the way that they refer to methods, rather than goals of social change. But this isn’t completely unprecedented, and isn’t a reason to dismiss these terms out of hand. The name ‘Chartists‘ does indeed refer to people who used the publication of a charter as a political tool, but the name signified a huge bundle of values, methods and goals which went way beyond the deployment of that document.
Nevertheless, to me it still just doesn’t feel like the broad, loosely coupled fields of human endeavour which stretch from Anonymous to JustGiving have decent labels yet – especially not labels that signify the ways in which two things can be both similar and different (e.g. ‘rail station’ and ‘bus station’). And this worries me because consistent names help causes to persist over time. If the field of AIDS research had been renamed every 6 months, could it have lasted as it did? Flighty, narrowly used language confuses supporters, prevents focus and is generally the enemy of long term success.
So, why does this dearth of decent sector labels exist, and can we do anything about it? The short version is, I don’t know. But I do know that the easy answer, ‘It’s all too new to have names’ cannot be right any more, not now that millions have signed petitions, joined Avaaz, donated to Obama online and so on.
I don’t know why the category terms in these sectors are so weak and changeable, but I am posting today because I would love to hear the thoughts of other people who might have some ideas as to the causes, and possible solutions. Here are some theories about the lack of good labels, off the top of my head:
I think some of the terms currently in circulation were coined in anticipation of the development of possible projects, not after retrospectively reviewing them. So the category terms sometimes seem to define what a field might look like, rather than what it ends up looking like (think ‘edemocracy‘, from a decade ago). This means the terms often feel like they don’t describe real projects very well.
In the traditional (for-profit) internet industry a certain amount of money can be made from coining or becoming associated with new terms (think of IBM and ‘smarter cities’). Because there is a profit motive, there may be a structural incentive to rapidly create new terms which displace older ones which haven’t been widely adopted yet. There are probably similar incentives in some academic fields too – career rewards for coining a key term.
Terms in these fields we work in are usually minted one at a time – ‘only children’ as opposed to born as whole families of interconnected terms. This is unlike the sciences which, since Linnaeus came up with his elegant way of naming living things, have been good at developing naming systems, not just one-off names. Organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry are related, but different in important ways – the names helpfully show that. To explain how 38 Degrees and mySociety are similar in some ways but different in other very significant ways needs a way of naming things that can signal both commonality and difference.
The knowledge-sharing disconnect between the academic and activist/practitioner communities is really, truly terrible, everywhere except data-driven voter-targeting. People who run services or campaigns normally never hear about what the brightest academics are saying about their own work. And if they do try to pay attention to the ideas coming out of academia then the signal to noise ratio is too bad and the filters are too few and too busy having day jobs.
And, of course, I should namecheck the sceptic’s probable theory: this would argue that good, clear terms don’t exist because all these widely differing organisations are nothing more than meaningless feel-good bunk, so language slides off them like an egg off Teflon. I don’t subscribe to this theory, of course, but it’s worth noting because I’m sure some people would provide this answer to my question.
I am planning to write a follow-up blog post to this containing some suggested terms we might use to reflect what the many digital projects out there have in common, and how they are different.
But before I do, I would like to hear people’s thoughts on whether this is a real problem at all, and if so why that might be, and what we might do about it. Who knows, maybe someone will even write a blog post about it, like we’re back in 2003 or something…
The Internet has thrown up a host of challenges for governments, large and small. Most people are familiar with the problems presented by issues like hacking, but there is another challenge which probably worries local governments just as much.
The challenge is this – how can a local government cheaply and efficiently cope with the fact that the public wants to request many services through a rapidly expanding plethora of different channels – phones, websites, email, apps, and Twitter? And how can it keep control of costs when new channels are being invented all the time?
The good news is there’s an answer that can prevent each new channel leading to ever-greater costs – a free technology called Open311. The bad news is not many people know it exists, let alone how to use it, or how it works.
In this post, and two more to follow, we’ll explain how Open311 can help governments (and citizens), how it functions, and what mySociety is doing to make Open311 work a bit better.
Background – the status quo
At mySociety, we’ve been running services for years that send messages of different kinds to government bodies, on behalf of our users. Since the very beginning we’ve always been keen that any public servant or politician who receives a message via one of our systems gets it in a familiar form that doesn’t require any special knowledge or training to read or reply to. That’s why for the first few years FixMyStreet sent all its problem reports via email, WhatDoTheyKnow sent all its FOI requests via email, and WriteToThem sent all its letters to politicians via email and fax (remember fax?).
However, despite the fact that reading and responding to emails doesn’t require governments to procure any new technology or any new skills, these days this approach can clearly be bettered. Today, an email report of a broken paving slab will typically be received by a public servant working in a call centre. This person will normally cut and paste text from the email into a new database, or into a new email, before dispatching it for someone else to consider, and action.
Now, imagine that instead of this, a problem report about a broken paving slab could be sent directly from a citizen and placed into the electronic to-do list for the local government team who fix paving slabs. This would do more than just cut costs – it would make it much easier for the citizen to get sent a notification when their problem is marked as ‘resolved’ in the official database.
This is not an original idea. The team at mySociety are not the only people who think that enabling citizens to directly slot requests, messages and problem reports into local government ‘to do’ databases is desirable. In the USA a group of civic minded technologists at OpenPlans were concerned by the same issue. They decided to do something about it – and they launched a project under the banner of Open311.
In the USA a number of cities have non-emergency government telephone helplines, accessible at the phone number 311. As a consequence ‘311’ has come to refer to more than just a phone line – it has come to mean the entire process of handling service requests from citizens around a whole range of non-emergency issues, from garbage to noisy neighbours.
To the ears of some American public servants the name ‘Open311’ consequently conjures up an image of a better, nicer more ‘open’ way of handling such non-emergency requests from citizens.
So what is Open311?
Beyond a brand, what is Open311? The answer is simple: Open311 is standardised way for computers to report problems (like potholes or fallen trees) to the computers run by the bodies that can fix them (like local governments or city departments). It’s an open standard that was started by the lovely people at OpenPlans, and which is now slowly iterating with the help of people inside and outside of governments.
In other words, Open311 is the mechanism through which citizens can slot their service requests directly into the computerised ‘to do’ lists of local government staff, and the way they those citizens can get back progress updates more quickly and easily.
Why is an Open Standard a good thing?
An open standard is just a way of communicating that anyone can implement it, without paying any money for permission to use the technology. The good thing about open standards is that once several technology systems start using the same ones, different systems from different manufacturers can talk to each other. When you phone someone else’s telephone, you are using an open standard – this means you don’t have to have the same brand of phone as the person at the other end.
What this means for a government is that if you can make your database of pothole reports speak to the outside world using Open311 then you don’t have to worry if reports are coming from two, ten or a thousands different websites or apps. You just run one system and it copes with all of them. This is not actually a new idea at all – local government call centres don’t worry what telephone network people are phoning from, or what brand of phone they are using.
However, it is a new idea in the realm of government IT systems for storing things like pothole repair requests, or school-admission applications. Traditionally these systems have not been set up to speak a common language with the outside world. Unfortunately, this failure to speak a common language has not always been by accident. Unscrupulous suppliers will sometimes intentionally set up systems so that the government has to pay extra money if they want any new channels to be added. Using Open311 is both a way to lower your future costs, and a way to make sure your current supplier can’t lock you into expensive upgrades.
Isn’t opening our systems to the outside a security nightmare?
Open311 is not about opening up private data, such as exposing the home addresses of vulnerable children. Open311 can be configured to open up government systems where that is appropriate, and everything that needs to stay private will stay private. There are no fundamental security problems to using an Open311 system.
Is this just about pothole reports?
No. Open311 isn’t limited to street-fixing services like FixMyStreet, even though that kind of problem is where Open311 started. As more and more public bodies offer their services online, they all face the same problem of spiralling costs as the public demands access through more and more diverse channels. In the future it should be possible to renew parking licenses, pay local taxes and do other complex transactions via Open311. But for today we encourage everyone interested to start at the simpler end of the scale.
How does mySociety use Open311?
We will still happily connect FixMyStreet to systems that don’t use Open311, but we always explain to clients that Open311 is the most desirable way of connecting their new FixMyStreet deployment with their current problem databases. We even offer lower prices to governments who use Open311.
We offer lower prices this partly because our costs go down, but also because we want to leave local governments with street-fault reporting systems that can connect not just to FixMyStreet, but to any new services in this area that emerge in the future. If Google maps or Twitter suddenly add street fault reporting, why should the local governments have to pay more money to handle those problems, when it could get them for free using Open311?
In short, we see Open311 as a solid foundation for building local government services without locking our clients into a relationship with mySociety as suppliers. In future we will also recommend the use of Open311 for services like ‘Please send me a new recycling bin’, ‘Please tell me what jobs you have open’ and ‘Please answer this FOI request’.
In the next post we’ll cover how Open311 works in a bit more detail (but still as clearly as we can), and in a third post we’ll explain how our work with FixMyStreet for Councils has led us to propose some improvements to the Open311 standard.
Photo by Rupert Ganzer (CC)
The last few weeks since the US election have seen an explosion in articles and blog posts about how Obama’s tech team pulled out the stops in their race against the Republicans. It’s been an exciting time to learn about the new techniques dreamed up, and the old ones put to the test.
For those of us who develop non-partisan services to help people report broken street lights or make Freedom of Information Requests, such stories certainly seem unimaginably glamorous: I don’t think any of my colleagues will ever get hugged by Barack Obama!
But it has also been an interesting time to reflect on the difference between choosing to use tech skills to win a particular fight, versus trying to improve the workings of the democratic system, or helping people to self-organise and take some control of their own lives.
At one level there’s no competition at all: the partisan tech community is big and economically healthy. It raises vast amounts of cold hard cash through credit card payments (taking a cut to pay its own bills) and produces squillons of donors, signers, visitors, tweeters, video watchers and so on. The non-partisan tech community is much smaller – has fewer sustainable organisations, and with the exception of some big online petitions, doesn’t get the same sort of traffic spikes. By these metrics there’s absolutely no doubt which use of tech is the most important: the partisan kind where technology is used to beat your opponent, whether they are a political candidate, a policy, company, or an idea.
But I am still filled with an excitement about the prospects for non-partisan technologies that I can’t muster for even the coolest uses of randomized control trial-driven political messaging. The reason why all comes down to the fact that major partisan digital campaigns change the world, but they don’t do it in the way that services like eBay, TripAdvisor and Match.com do.
What all these sites have in common – helping people sell stuff they own, find a hotel, or a life partner – is that they represent a positive change in the lives of millions of people that is not directly opposed by a counter-shift. These sites have improved the experience of selling stuff, finding hotels and finding life partners in ways that don’t attract equal and opposite forces, driven by similar technologies.
This is different from the case of campaigning tech: here a huge mailing list is pitted against another even huger mailing list. Epic fund-raising tools are pitched against even more epic fund-raising tools. Orca vs Narwhal. Right now, in US politics, the Democrats have a clear edge over the technology lined up against them, and I totally understand why that must feel amazing to be part of. But everything you build in this field always attracts people trying to undo your work by directly opposing it. There is something inate to the nature of partisanship which means that one camp using a technology will ultimately attract counter-usage by an opposing camp.
This automatic-counterweighting doesn’t happen with services that shift whole sectors – like TripAdvisor did. In the hotel-finding world, the customer has been made stronger, the hotel sector weaker, and the net simply doesn’t provide tools to the hotel industry to counter what TripAdvisor does.
It is this model – the model of scaleable, popular technology platforms that help people to live their lives better – that I aspire to bring to the civic, democratic and community spheres in my work. Neither I nor mySociety has yet come up with anything even remotely on the scale of a TripAdvisor, but there remains the tantalising possibility that someone might manage it – a huge, scaleable app of meaningful positive impact on democratic, civic or governance systems*. Our sites are probably about as big as it gets so far, and that’s not big enough by far.
If someone does manage to find and deliver the dream – some sort of hugely scalable, impactful non-partisan civic or democratic app & website, it is unlikely that the net will instantly throw up an equal and opposite counterweight. There is a real possibility that the whole experience of being a citizen, the whole task of trying to govern a country well will be given a shot in the arm that won’t go away as soon as someone figures out how to oppose it. I’m not talking Utopia, I’m just talking better. But what motivates me is that it could be better for good, not just until the Other Team matches your skills.
And that – in rather more words than I meant to use – is why I am still excited by non-partisan tech, and why I really hope that some of the awesome technologists who worked in the political campaigns of 2012 get involved in our scene.
I’m on Twitter if anyone wants to talk about this more.
* You can certainly make an argument that Twitter and Facebook sort-of represent non-partisan democracy platforms that have scaled. But some people disagree vehemently, and I don’t want to get into that here.